The Rise and Fall of William Balston and Springfield Mill, Kent
Part One, An Introduction
It is my intention to draw on previously published works by greater authors myself, as well as (mainly parchment) documents held at Springfield Mill Archives, to add detail, colour, and perhaps a little supposition, to what is already known, yet often mis-quoted and mis-understood, about the life and times of William Balston and the early years of Springfield Mill, at Maidstone in Kent. It was, after all, William Balston and his family that played the main part in making the Whatman ‘brand’ synonymous with quality throughout the World for the next 200 years, yet it nearly didn’t happen at all!
In early 1774, James Whatman the Younger [fig.1] (also referred to by some as James Whatman the Second1) contacted his friend, Samuel Bosanquet [fig.2], a second generation Huguenot refugee – at that time a Director of the Bank of England – to see if that gentleman would be able to recommend an assistant for him. Whatman was in low spirits because his wife Sarah (née Sarah Stanley) had provided him with three daughters, of whom only two had survived infancy, and was herself in very poor health. Whatman needed a son to pass his business on to in due course, and it did not look like he was going to be blessed with one.
Whatman needed a ‘sound’ boy, with a good all-round education, who he could train in the skill of paper-making (at which Whatman himself was no slouch, though he employed some of the best paper-makers in the land to do the work at his several mills, centred on Turkey Mill in Maidstone); as well as to train to run the business for him; and if suitable, to act as his general factotum in household and business matters – Whatman at that time being a very wealthy land-owner as well as a prosperous business man.
James Whatman did not want a would-be manager, in the absence of a son he needed an heir presumptive, and he was prepared to spend time and money on moulding such a person, if only Samuel Bosanquet would supply him with an appropriate young man.
Thus, in 1774 Samuel Bosanquet applied to Christ’s Hospital [fig.3], an institution that was neither a hospital nor the often (these days) thought of ‘orphanage’, but a boarding school for boys from ‘deserving families’, operating at two locations: a short-stay preparatory school in Hertford, and the main ‘grammar’ schools in Newgate Street, London.
In about 1769, Joseph Balston, who had grown-up under his marine chandler father’s roof in Bridport, Dorset, but had subsequently migrated to London with his brother Samuel, petitioned Christ’s Hospital in the prescribed manner to take his ten year old son William into their care, as he, Joseph, “…has a wife and two children to provide for, and is not able to maintain them without assistance, being in poor circumstances…to be Educated and brought up among other poor Children”.2
Christ’s was a major source of well-trained boys as clerks for the burgeoning mercantile trades of London and other major provincial towns and cities, with Christ’s boys well respected by the general populace of London Town, marked-out by their blue coats and yellow stockings. The authors Lamb and Colleridge number among their notable alumni3. The boys would leave with a sound education in ‘The Classics’, as well as English (both spoken and grammar) arithmetic (with a particular leaning toward accountancy), penmanship, some Latin, to say naught of good behaviour which was quite literally ‘flogged into them’.
Once chosen by Samuel Bosanquet (we know not of his methodology), William Balston, by then a little under fifteen years old, was released from Christ’s to his mother (his father having apparently died in the interim – a subject of continuing research by this author), and a month later was sent by coach to Maidstone, to be greeted by the great James Whatman the Younger, and taken into his family, of which he remained a part for nearly twenty years.
Sadly, just months after William’s arrival at Turkey Court, Mrs. Sarah Whatman [fig.4] died, presumed to be from complications resulting from the delivery of her third daughter, Laetitia, and the whole household was cast into gloom. However, not one to live under a cloud over-long, James Whatman married again just eighteen months later (his father, James Whatman the Elder had married the widow of his business partner Richard Harris less than three months after his demise, so perhaps there was a different set of social mores in those days).
Whatman’s new bride was the cousin of Samuel Bosanquet aforementioned, Susanna [fig.5], and she brought an air of gaiety and life back to what must have become a rather depressed and depressing James Whatman, Turkey Mill and the great house Turkey Court. Two years later she presented James Whatman with a son and heir, and in the best family tradition they named the boy James. This James Whatman was to have nothing directly to do with paper-making (regardless of current local thinking), but he will appear again as my narrative unfolds, and will be referred to as James Whatman Junior.
There can be no doubt that William Balston (by then about eighteen years old) was over-joyed for his master and mistress, but he must have felt a pang of insecurity now that Whatman had an heir. However, it would be at least twenty years before the child would come of age and be eligible to inherit the business, and perhaps he would still need an overseer. So all was joy and laughter in the Whatman household again, and James Whatman the Younger/Second, continued with the training and education of William Balston, involving him more and more in the paper-making business (he had been relieved of any responsibility for household management when Susanna came on the scene, the ‘Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman’4 [fig.6] giving us some insight into the running of a major household at the turn of the eighteenth century.)
William Balston became a skilled paper-maker, serving-out his seven year apprenticeship under none other than James Whatman himself, though he was not as gifted in business management as Whatman had hoped, which made one of Whatman’s subsequent actions even more surprising. In 1793 James Whatman decided he wanted no more to do with industry and a potentially troublesome workforce (he had not had a problem with his staff, but had seen the French Revolution break-out just the other side of the English Channel, and knew that the French Revolutionaries were inciting their British republican counterparts to anarchy). Whatman declared his intention to sell his paper-making business, lock, stock and barrels of Smalts5. The eventual buyers were two local minor businessmen, brothers Finch and Thomas Robert Hollingworth, who knew little or nothing of the paper industry, and needed William Balston to go into partnership with them to ease the transition, and basically keep the business running smoothly.
Now here’s a topic for debate, though not in this article: Why did James Whatman loan William Balston £5000 against a simple ‘note of hand’ (i.o.u. in today’s parlance) – albeit at 5% interest – so that William Balston could become a one-third partner in the new business, if he (Whatman) knew that William Balston was not a very good businessman? Was it to ‘sweeten the deal’ for the sale to the Hollingworth’s? Was it out of some sense of loyalty to Balston so that he could stay-on in a business that he had previously been trained to perhaps command at some point? Was it to ‘spike the guns’ of the Hollingworth’s, no, certainly not that! Whatever the reason(s), the Balston Hollingworth partnership took-over the business (perhaps slightly before the appointed date) in August 1794.
With Britain at war with France and her allies, there were no Continental papers to be had, papers which had previously held a substantial place in the British market. Add to this the vast improvements that Whatman had himself made to English papers (on the back of work that his father had started with improved mould covers and his own work on beating ‘engines’[fig.7] and the previously mentioned inclusion of smalts), and it is not difficult to see how the Balston-Hollingworth partnership prospered. Whether James Whatman had perhaps been premature in selling his renowned business is a matter for conjecture, but within four years of the sale, Whatman was dead, at the age of just fifty-seven, and had suffered serious illness before that. William Balston on the other hand had done well financially, repaying Whatman (or maybe his widow) that £5000, with interest, and at the close of his partnership with the Hollingworths, had accumulated £15,000 to start his Springfield Mill venture6.
However, we must not allow wealth and profits to colour our impression of William Balston’s personal disposition, for he was a somewhat introspective man. Life had, from time to time, dealt him a pretty rough hand. His early teens had been spent in a rather austere boarding school; there was the early death of his father; he was packed-off to live in a rural town; the death of his master’s wife; his future plans thwarted by the arrival of an heir apparent; and his master selling the business (and initially it must have seemed, Balston’s own future).
Those years had also had their ‘up sides’ though, we should note. Rather than going into a ‘counting house’ after his days at Christ’s Hospital, he was taken under the wing of one of the most influential men of business of his day; he was treated as part of the family, a rather wealthy family at that; he was apprenticed to ‘the greatest paper-maker in the land’, one could not wish for a greater accolade; he had somehow met and fell in love with a beautiful, accomplished, young lady (Catherine Vallance), herself with links to the paper ‘trade’; and he was so well respected within the industry that he had become Chairman of The Master Paper Makers, briefly both for Kent and nationally – though with great position comes huge responsibility, which also took its toll.
Sometime around the year 1804 (if not earlier), William Balston realised that he was being ill used. The Hollingworth’s it seems were not only trading on Balston’s good name, and why not, but were perhaps using his position in the partnership to bolster rather dubious business arrangements. Another Hollingworth brother, Benjamin, had joined the ‘firm’ to operate their sales office in Watling Street, London, and so now he could be out-voted three to one, and often was. The full story may never be known, but is a topic ripe for further investigation. The initial Partnership term of fifteen years still had another four years to run, but things were so bad that it became impossible for William to be even in the same place as the various Hollingworth’s, so it was eventually agreed that the Partnership should be dissolved. Even the terms of the dissolution were acrimonious and hard-fought, but William seems to have carried the day, and very surprisingly the Hollingworth’s allowed him to continue to use the famous ‘J.Whatman’ name and cypher in his papers [fig.8], but they too would continue to use the ‘J.Whatman’ name, appended with the words ‘Turkey Mill’ [fig.9], because, again to confound today’s thinking even in Maidstone itself, the Hollingworth’s continued to operate Turkey Mill (and it’s satellites) where the famous Whatman name had been established, while William Balston went off initially to Eyehorne Mill7, near Hollingbourne, and eventually, Springfield Mill.
His first purchase of land at Springfield (named after it’s springs of pure, clear water, so important for white paper-making) was in March, 1805, when he purchased just short of eight acres of land, including meadows, a hop-ground and a small orchard [fig.10], for the princely sum of one thousand, five hundred pounds, paid in cash. The title deeds in Springfield Archives trace the land back to members of the local landed gentry, who had amassed vast tracts of land in several counties (some of it by marriage settlement), one of whom was hit by a one-off Land Tax, as part of a government scheme to try to clear the National Debt. Thus, through various sales and re-sales, the land known as Lords Hopground, Little Meadow, and part of Rushey Meadows, came to be sold by a Mr. William Coleman – a local ‘Gentleman’, who appears to have been a property speculator – to William Balston [fig.11].
This particular event represents just a part of William Balston’s disastrous financial situation of the ensuing fifty-odd years, as well as begging the question, where did he get the money from, especially as this was just the first of three such purchases in close succession (discussed in Part Two of this series). His financial downfall actually started with what at first he must have thought of as something of a coup, in that auspicious agreement with the Hollingworth's that he could use the Whatman brand, and so would they. Therefore, to William Balston’s mind, the only way to overpower them in their established market place with not dis-similar papers, was by sheer scale of operation. He had to have the biggest and best manufactory in Britain, if not the world, and his initial plan was to have a mill of TEN working vats, all producing first class white papers. This aspiration was to cause his downfall.
Notes: 1 John N. Balston, The Elder James Whatman, privately published, 1992, Vol.2 Table XX shows the Whatman family tree, with James Whatman the Younger as the fourth James Whatman in succession, with three others indirectly before that. 2 Thomas Balston, William Balston Paper Maker 1759 -1849, Methuen & Co., London, 1954 3 Thomas Balston, ibid. 4 The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman, edited by Thomas Balston, Geoffrey Bles Ltd., London, 1956 5 Smalts: A blue ground-up glass-like powder added to the half-beaten rags in the beating engines (Hollanders) to improve the whiteness of the finished papers. There is some dispute as to whether JW2 originated the idea. Today, commercial bright white paper manufacture still uses a similar process, called ‘OBA’s’, abbreviation for Optical Brightening Agents (U.S. = FWA), as do some domestic washing powders. 6 Thomas Balston op.cit. 2 above 7 John N. Balston (see note 1 above) is quite forceful in dispelling the myth published by his distant cousin Thomas Balston, that William went from Turkey Mill under the Hollingworth partnership to Hollingbourne Mill, and that it was in fact on Eyehorne Mill, near Hollingbourne, that Wm. Balston took out a short lease, and worked for a few years before the establishment of Springfield Mill.